Whenever you read a piece of literature, you need to be aware of its literary genre so that you can interpret it properly.
For example, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens tells a story about people who lived and died during the French Revolution. But it is a fictional story, not an historical account. You can read it for spiritual inspiration but not for historical information. Why? Because that’s the nature of its literary genre as a novel.
When you read the Bible, you should be aware that it contains many literary genres. The most prominent is historical narrative, the skillful telling of historical events. But the Bible also includes laws, poems, proverbs, prophecies, parables, and epistles. Each literary genre is distinct and requires different rules of interpretation.
In How to Read Proverbs, Tremper Longman notes that proverbs typically have three characteristics: brevity, parallelism, and imagery. Let’s take a quick look at each one.
First, brevity: Proverbs are typically—though not always—short, pithy sayings. Proverbs 1-9 are an exception to this rule, but chapters 10-31 prove it. Often, a proverb consists of just two lines. For example, consider Proverbs 1:7:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
In many ways, this proverb is the essence of the book’s message. If you want to know how to live the good life, then revere God first. Most proverbs similarly pack large wisdom into little words.
Second, parallelism: Most of the proverbs are two lines long. Some of these proverbs employ straightforward parallelism, that is, saying the same thing twice, but using different words. For example, consider Proverbs 16:13:
Kings take pleasure in honest lips;
they value a man who speaks the truth.
The message of both lines is basically the same: Kings value honesty.
Many proverbs use antithetical parallelism, that is, saying one thing on the first line, and the opposite thing on the next. For example, consider Proverbs 10:4:
Lazy hands make a man poor,
but diligent hands bring wealth.
Throughout Proverbs, you will find stark contrasts between wisdom and folly, diligence and laziness, righteousness and sin—all in the course of two lines. That is the power of antithetical parallelism.
One final form of parallelism is comparative parallelism. The words “better than” typically appear in proverbs using this form. For example, consider Proverbs 16:8:
Better a little with righteousness
than much gain with injustice.
Much of Proverbs deals with worldly success, but it never loses sight of the truth that the depth of your integrity is more important than the size of your bank account.
Third, imagery: Proverbs paints verbal pictures that stick in your mind and (hopefully) shape your behavior. For example, consider Proverbs 26:14:
As a door turns on its hinges,
so a sluggard turns on his bed.
You can almost hear the bed springs creak, can’t you?
Brevity, parallelism, and imagery. Those are three basic characteristics of biblical proverbs.